Friday, October 30, 2009

Mill Creek Hunter

I posted this story last year but thought I'd share it again as the season is perfect for it:

The boys loved to coonhunt. They put on their camouflage jackets, grabbed flashlights, called to their dogs and were in the woods as the sun set.

Sunup struck scent immediately and tore off through the underbrush along Mill Creek.

“Where’s he goin’?” John Junior asked.

“Cain’t rightly see, but he’s on the creekbank.” Harl was stocky, broad and strong. His jacket bulged at the shoulders and his boots were at least size twelve. At thirteen, he promised to be a big man in time.

“Watch yore step through this piece. I tripped up in a hole along about here last time, ruined any chance at a coon for sure. All that noise, and Bub hollering because he thought something got me.” John Junior chuckled at the memory. “He’s okay, but he sure is a scaredy cat.”

The boys were quiet for a while, intent on making their way through the downed tree branches, briers and thistles that lined the creekbank. Far ahead they could hear Sunup singing treed.

“Cain’t see a thing in this blamed dark,” Harl complained. “Might as well have a mask over my eyes.” John Junior grunted in agreement as he lost his footing and fell hard on a poplar log that was invisible under twining grapevines. He got up, checked his light and stepped over the log, giving a kick for good measure.

Ahead, Sunup’s singing turned to excited yips and howls. The boys picked up their pace, driven by the dog’s apparent excitement.

“He ain’t singing treed,” Harl observed. “Wonder what he’s after? A mink, maybe?”

“Could be,” John Junior muttered. “Fool dog. I’ve trained him and trained him, but he forgets himself sometimes. Could be an old burger wrapper for all I know.” He was embarrassed by his dog’s lack of control. Even the best breeding could go wrong, it seemed. Sunup’s mother was a Grand Champion at the state meet, and his daddy was a Grand Champion too, over in Missouri. You’d think their son would know a coon from a burger wrapper, but Sunup could get off scent by the darnedest things.

The boys rounded a bend in the creek and shone their lights through the night mist that rose from the creek. Sunup’s eyes glared in the sudden light, and they could see his hackles raised and his white, shining teeth as he barked and barked at something just off to their right. What was it? The boys swung their lights in the direction of the dog’s bark and peered into the darkness beyond the lanterns’ beams.

“What is it, boy? You got a bear cornered over there?” There had been a bear sighted along the creek last week, Harl recalled. A big one, maybe 600 pounds. His neck hair prickled as he strained his eyes to see what the dog was seeing.

“John Junior? You see anything?” John Junior didn’t reply, and Harl glanced at his friend to see what he was doing.

John Junior was frozen in place. His face was stretched into a scream but no sound came from his mouth. His hand was raised and one finger pointed off into the blackness behind Harl.

“What the he…” Harl swung around quickly. Then he too froze in place.

Standing at the edge of the light circle was a black dog. A huge black dog with powerful chest and forelegs. The rest of the dog’s body was shrouded in darkness, but his strong neck was completely visible.

“Where…where…is his h-h-head?” John Junior whispered. “Do you see his head, Harl?”

Harl stared. “No. I don’t see it. There ain’t a head. That dog ain’t got a head!”

John Junior jerked as if waking from a bad dream. “Come on! Let’s get out of here!” He stumbled on a root but righted himself and streaked by Harl. Sunup was right behind John Junior, his tail tucked under his body and his ears flat to his head.

“Wait for me!” Harl yelled, as he streaked after his friend. Behind him he heard an unearthly sound, the sound of a hound howling as if he’d treed ten coons. The sound came closer and closer as the boys ran. The patter of following feet echoed in the midnight woods, louder than the pounding feet of the running boys.

John Junior stopped in his tracks, panting. “It’s coming! Quick! Up this tree!” He shinnied up the tree like a squirrel, and Harl, for all his bulk, was close behind. “Hurry! He might not see us!”

The boys climbed and clawed up the tree, then stopped when they were eight feet up to listen. Sunup was still baying and running, far ahead on the trail and heading for home. But the other dog, the one with no head. It stopped at the base of the tree.

Slowly, slowly the dog circled the tree. It stretched its body as far up the tree trunk as it could reach. A smell, the smell of long dead flesh, assailed the cowering boys’ nostrils. “I’m going to be sick,” Harl whispered.

“Shhh!” John Junior hissed. “Be still. And be quiet, for God’s sake!”

The dog below heard them. They could tell by the way its headless neck swayed as if looking up. There were no eyes, and yet they could feel the dog looking right at them as they huddled in the tree.

“Go away! Git!” John Junior shouted suddenly. “Leave us alone! Git, you hound of Satan!”

A snarl rose from the dog’s throat, so loud it shook the tree. The dog clawed at the tree trunk and hollow, ghostly barking echoed from the hills above the creek.

“Geez! Look what you did! He’s going to climb up after us!” Harl’s voice shook and tears streaked down his cheeks. “Why’d you do that? Geez, you’ve made him really mad! Look! Look! He’s climbing the tree! Oh momma, save us!” Blubbering, Harl hid his face in his shirt and cried.

“Shut up, you big ninny! He can’t climb this tree! He’s a…a…ghost dog. Ghosts can’t climb, can they?”

“I don’t know. I ain’t never met one before,” Harl hissed, ashamed at his own tears. “What are we gonna do?”

“We’re going to stay right here. Got any better ideas? You could go down and scare him off, of course.”

‘Heck no!” Harl’s eyes were so wide-stretched John Junior could see them glistening in the dark. “You go down, John Junior. I’m a-staying right where I am.”

John Junior looked down at the headless dog. “Nope. I ain’t going. Sunup! Sunup! Git ‘im, Sunup!” Far off in the night, they could hear Sunup still baying, but the sound grew fainter and fainter. Below, the ghost dog continued to circle the tree, snuffling and growling. The tree swayed with the weight of the boys, and a dead branch cracked loose and crashed to the ground. The dog did not flinch even though the branch broke across its back.

All night the dog circled. All night the boys struggled to stay awake and hold on to the tree. A strong wind lifted the dead leaves in a whirlwind, and the tree swayed in the breeze. Slowly, slowly, Harl could feel the tree begin to list to the north, and he could hear the roots popping loose from the earth below. The dog snarled and grinned and kept its place beside the bending trunk.

“John Junior, this tree is gonna fall! Can’t you feel it?”

“I can feel it. Hold on, Harl. That’s all we can do.” John Junior’s voice sounded far away. Faint. The wind surged, the tree shivered and bent.

A glimmer of light struck Harl’s face, blinding him with its intensity. He squinted to see what it was. The sun! It was the sun! Morning was coming!

“John Junior! John Junior! Look! The sun is coming up!” Harl looked down and saw his friend’s body hanging limply against the tree’s trunk. “Wake up, man! It’s morning! Where is that dog now?”

Looking down, Harl saw the black dog far below. The dog knew he was looking; it whimpered, tucked its tail under its body and vanished like smoke in the sun’s streaming rays.

‘John Junior? You okay?” Harl clambered down the tree and shook his friend. John Junior’s head lolled back, his eyes rolled back into their sockets. Harl swung his hand hard and slapped his friend’s face with a smacking blow. “John! Man, what’s the matter with you?”

John Junior’s head quivered, then slowly raised and stared at Harl. “Hey man. What did you do that for?”

Harl stared at him. “Let’s get out of here, my friend. Let’s get out of here, and let’s never come back again. Agreed?”

“Whatever you say,” John Junior agreed. “I don’t see what the big deal is, though. Why are we up in this tree anyways? It’s not the best place I ever spent the night, you know. And where is Sunup? Sunup! Sunup! Here boy!”

As the sun stretched its arms across the sky, the boys slid down the tree and limped up the path. Sunup was sound asleep under the porch at home.

Back in the woods along the creek, a shadowy shape blended into the shadows under the brush and disappeared. Until the next time.

This story is based on a Jackson County (West Virginia) legend of a black, headless dog that has supposedly been seen over the years in the Tug Fork area of the county, along the banks of Mill Creek.

c Susanna Holstein 10.21.2008


City Mouse said...

Yikes! Sounds like an American version of the old Black Dog legends from the British Isles - those things are always considered malevolent. Scary! Great story!

Janet, said...

Good story, Susanna. You had me worried about John Junior and Harl.

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